Project Management

When clients are people too

Client relationships are not zero-sum propositions. Chip Camden explores the elements of developing friendships with your clients.

It sometimes seems like we consultants are always having to defend the terms of our contract. We spend a lot of attention making sure that we get paid on time, and that our clients don't abuse our relationship in other ways. After all, if we don't look out for ourselves, who will? Months of fighting for your rights, though, can make you ready to give it all up.

And that's exactly what you should do.

I don't mean that you should leave the consulting business, but you should get out of the vicious cycle of competing with your clients over who will get the best of whom. That sort of behavior is symptomatic of an impersonal relationship. It's like a game in which the object is to rack up the higher score, no matter what the consequences for your opponent. If you find yourself in that sort of struggle, you're doing it wrong.

A more beneficial relationship is not oppositional. Nor is it a zero-sum proposition. You and your client can work together to benefit each party more than either of you could accomplish by other means. Human culture has devised a most ingenious mechanism for this type of arrangement. It's called "friendship."

Two key elements in a friendship with your clients are trust and kindness. You can and should build these gradually. Start by performing some little act of kindness that goes beyond the requirements of your contract. Make sure your client knows about it and knows that it's beyond what they should expect from you, but don't over-emphasize it either. To take this first step requires trust—that the client won't suddenly demand this treatment all the time or otherwise abuse your kindness. But if they respond well, then you can expand on your random kind acts. It usually doesn't take long for them to start reciprocating with kindnesses of their own.

Why should you go to all this trouble? Besides the fact that it just feels nicer to like each other, a friendly relationship has other advantages—because each party is looking out for the best interests of the other. I've had clients find additional business for me, or give me a heads-up on some new technology they think I should know about. If they do slip on their contractual obligations, it only takes a gentle reminder to set things straight. Most of all, if you're frequently giving more than is strictly required, then your client will make allowances for when things don't come together as planned.

I faced my recent surgical hiatus with my typical Stoic independence: I planned out how I was going to work enough hours and save enough money to be able to manage financially, and I scheduled deliverables so my clients would experience minimal interruption. Then my surgeon called to reschedule the surgery. Suddenly, all my plans had major scheduling holes in them. But all of my clients went beyond the requirements of our relationship to help me out. My largest client was able to juggle some projects so I could have work to do in the weeks before the surgery. Another client went out of his way to turn payment around in just a couple of days (without my asking) so I could have it in the bank before I even went into the hospital. A third client good-naturedly postponed a planned project. My TechRepublic editor, Mary Weilage, generously offered to let me take some time off from writing. Without these acts of kindness, I could have stressed over scheduling and finances as I went into surgery. Instead, I felt a genuine human appreciation from my clients that helped me to face my hospitalization cheerfully and optimistically. Not having to return to a train wreck has also made my recovery and getting back to work much more pleasant.

As I've said before, business relationships are first and foremost human relationships. Yes, the business relationship may define specific boundaries that you wouldn't find in your typical friendship, but the key component of friendship—helping each other for your common good—is nevertheless the ultimate goal of the consulting relationship. If it isn't meant to be beneficial for both sides, then someone needs to ask why they're doing it at all.

About

Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

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